The Unbearable Whiteness of Reading


reading1Because I make my living as a writer, people might be surprised to know that I have a hard time reading. While the act of writing feels as natural to me as breathing, moving my eyes from word to word on a page sometimes feels akin to pulling a heavy cart uphill.

When I was twenty-five, I asked my eye doctor why, when I read, the white spaces between the words on a page sometimes pop out at me, and why, when I reach the end of a sentence, I often have trouble finding my way to the beginning of the next sentence. I also read slowly and—as demonstrated by my SAT and GRE scores—I suffered from poor reading comprehension.

He said I have a reading disability. “You mean, like dyslexia?” I asked. He shook his head and said there was no real term for my imperfect brain-to-eye connection, but if I wanted to focus better I should 1) move a black sheet of construction paper down the page, sentence by sentence; or 2) trace along the sentences with my finger or a pencil eraser.


I used those strategies to propel me through graduate school—a piece of black paper was always sticking out from the scholarly texts I lugged around Brown University’s campus. I also was quick to join study sessions, where I would glean from conversation all that I’d missed from my readings.

To be sure, my reading skills have improved over the years. If I’m into good book, I can jam through it without losing my place or seeing the white spaces. When I read online, I enlarge the font and allow the cursor to take the place of my finger.

But I still lose my concentration, and often end up skimming. I read first sentences and subtitles, and can usually come away with just enough relevant information to fake my way through dinner party conversations. If I know an article holds some import to my life—like if it’s about raising a teenage girl, or how to make the best French onion soup—I’ll send it to my husband and ask him to let me know what the takeaway is.

I recently mentioned this personal annoyance to my therapist, Jessica. She arched her eyebrows with a disturbingly knowing look.

“I think you have ADHD,” she said. “Not a reading disability.”


“Yup. You have all the classic signs. You’ve probably had it your whole life.”

I went home and Googled ADHD, skimming through all the verbiage and statistics. Then I took the test. If I agreed with at least 15 of the statements, it was likely that I had attention deficit disorder: 

  1. I have difficulty getting organized.
  2. When given a task, I usually procrastinate rather than doing it right away.
  3. I work on a lot of projects, but can’t seem to complete most of them.
  4. I tend to make decisions and act on them impulsively – like spending money, getting sexually involved with someone, diving into new activities, and changing plans.
  5. I get bored easily.
  6. No matter how much I do or how hard I try, I just can’t seem to reach my goals.
  7. I often get distracted when people are talking; I just tune out or drift off.
  8. I get so wrapped up in some things I do that I can hardly stop to take a break or switch to doing something else.ADHD1
  9. I tend to overdo things even when they’re not good for me – like compulsive shopping, drinking too much, overworking, and overeating.
  10. I get frustrated easily and I get impatient when things are going too slowly.
  11. My self-esteem is not as high as that of others I know.
  12. I need a lot of stimulation from things like action movies and video games, new purchases, being among lively friends, driving fast or engaging in extreme sports.
  13. I tend to say or do things without thinking, and sometimes that gets me into trouble.
  14. I’d rather do things my own way than follow the rules and procedures of others.
  15. I often find myself tapping a pencil, swinging my leg, or doing something else to work off nervous energy.
  16. I can feel suddenly depressed when I’m separated from people, projects or things that I like to be involved with.
  17. I see myself differently than others see me, and when someone gets angry with me for doing something that upset them I’m often very surprised.
  18. Even though I worry a lot about dangerous things that are unlikely to happen to me, I tend to be careless and accident prone.
  19. Even though I have a lot of fears, people would describe me as a risk taker.
  20. I make a lot of careless mistakes.
  21. I have blood relatives who suffer from ADHD, bipolar disorder, or substance abuse.

I agreed with seventeen.

I was not alone. According to ADDITUDE, an online zine devoted to all things ADHD, 4.4 percent of the adult US population has ADHD. That’s a lot of distracted insecure risk-taking pencil-tapping humans, if you ask me.

So, it turns out my optometrist had been mistaken. I didn’t have a reading disability. I just couldn’t always concentrate long enough or hard enough to allow the words from the page to travel to my parietal lobe in an orderly fashion. It’s like, sometimes, when I’m in the middle of reading, my brain suddenly holds up ayield YIELD TO ONCOMING THOUGHTS sign, or a photo of a cute bunny, and I have to start over again.

I am getting better, though, day by day. I am learning to tame my monkey mind through meditation, mindfulness, exercise, and radical acceptance. (I tried drugs but they made me quiver and quake and sent my blood pressure into dangerously high digits.) And Jessica has been offering me tactics to help keep me more focused on my objectives (see: #1, #2, #3, #6).

But I’m not even close to there yet. Case in point: yesterday I was having kind of a lousy day. I had a lot to accomplish and felt angry at myself for not being more productive (see #10 and #11), so I did what I’ve been programmed to do most of my life: I ignored Jessica’s advice and went looking for a distraction. I cleaned the cat box. Played a round of Toy Blast. Unwound a paper clip and wrapped it around my finger. Made another list of things to do. Checked Facebook. Looked at pictures of food on my food porn site. Read email.

I saw that I’d gotten a beautiful post from Jena Schwartz, a poet and writing coach whose blog I follow (or, really, whose blog I skim). In her “Practices for a Busy Mind and Being Here Now,” she talked about going for a quiet morning walk out in nature. She kept getting distracted—by her thoughts, her phone, tasks that needed taking care of, her children and wife, her job. After telling herself she had to BE HERE NOW, she walked for a while longer, then sat on a rock and meditated. By the time she got home she felt rushed because she didn’t think she had enough time to write her newsletter, and how crazy it was that she felt that way. She realized it was more important that she MAKE ROOM for the words, rather than anxiously try to squeeze them through a muddled mind.

All you have to do is begin. 
Just as the water always flows downstream,
the rest happens by itself. 

Jena’s tale—I read the whole thing; every last word—resonated with me so much so that I decided I wanted to write a blog post about Jena’s blog post, but it wasn’t on my list of THINGS TO DO TODAY, which made me castigate myself for not following my new rules and staying on track, which distracted me into fixating on my ADHD, which distracted me enough to write a blog post about that, instead.

So here it is, and now I can check WRITE BLOG POST off my To-Do list and feel gratified that I completed a task—a great accomplishment for someone who gets lost on a page as easily as a blind man does in a circus tent.

I will get by. I will get better. With practice and patience, I, too,  will figure out how to make room for my words. Words to read. Words to write. Words to live by.



Notes From A Boarding Pass


It would be unfair
if after flying
half way around
the world
cramped indelicately
between an
oversized computer
and a mother with an infant
letting go
letting go
your plane crashed during landing.

It would be unfair if
your lover promised
he’d wait and when
you finally found
the suitcase and
the nerve and
the time
he changed his mind.



Way back when, I used to post recipes–highlighting some of the better meals we cooked. Then I got bored of writing about food. There are way too many great food blogs out there. I had nothing to add.

But last night we tried out a recipe that was so close to perfect, I have to share. Here’s the original  recipe for Half Baked Harvest’s Chicken Shawarma and Sweet Potato Fry Bowls

Here’s what we did differently:

*Used thighs instead of breasts;
*Broccoli instead of asparagus (half the price);
*Roasted some button mushrooms; red onion slices; and a russet potato (also cut into matchsticks like the sweet potatoes) as well;
*Sauce: we omitted the mint, added a dollop of mayo and a squeeze of sriracha (BTW: until I typed that just now, I had no idea that the extra “r” existed. I’ve been pronouncing it wrong for decades);
*We made couscous because Loy would rather eat pig balls than quinoa;
*Our toppings: feta cheese/sliced-up Trader Joe’s Hot&Sweet cherry peppers/my homemade carrot pickles (ask me for the recipe)/kalamatas/sliced sun-dried tomatoes/sliced cukes that I de-seeded and salted for an hour

Five-stars. A perfect meal. It’s supposed to serve 5-6, but the three of us finished off every last bit, so double it if you want leftovers. You’re welcome.

Sand and Ice


Daylight: life
burrows out and up.

A common but no less uncommon tern swoops
past bubbling edges. There, a cormorant, black as ash,

gathers the sun in its arcing wings. Prehistoric
pelicans cling clumsily to a pocket of air, then fall

like rocks, shattering through undulating surf as the
red-shorted lifeguard hooks his gaze

onto distant thighs smothered and scented
with coconut . And the dimwitted sandpipers peck

at the straggling sunburnt seaweed, and finally,
late as usual, the seagulls

Out there on the frozen plain
the ice is

breathing. Beneath the floes
the water streams faster,

further; sun rays race atop glinting surfaces;
unsuspended ice unfurls

below a red fox pattering berg
to white berg. Life froths

anew. Yawning bears scratch and
stretch and lumber toward meat. Mayflies

flitter away abbreviated lives on
a nanosecond of love while still in flight. Hurrying

toward their beginnings, salmon
muscle past the ocean’s currents. And

here, when the soft shoots release winter’s hold,
the hidden pheromones of humans
begin to seep.




Years ago I volunteered at a nearby assisted living facility, spending a few hours each week with sixty seniors. I read the newspaper aloud to them in the morning. We discussed current events and watched movies. I called BINGO, paying out a quarter to each elated winner. I ate lunch with them, played Scrabble and UNO, and sat beside them while local musicians serenaded us.

Being that I am a storyteller by trade, I especially loved hearing about their past lives. Roxanne* and her brain surgeon husband helped found the Vermont Youth Orchestra in 1964. Fred was a Seabee seabeeduring WWII. Louis practiced law in New York City for five decades. Gillian was an assistant to former Vermont governor Madeline Kunin. Margaret taught German literature at a New York State University.

I felt a particular fondness for Josephine, who had been an army officer. After her discharge Josephine battled depression and alcoholism. She kicked both, but lost her marriage in the process. Josephine had a gruff demeanor and was not prone to socializing, but whenever she did join an activity, she was the brightest most loquacious soul in the room.

Whenever I visited the facility, I would traipse down the long hallway to her large sunny room and knock.

“Yes? Who’s there?” she’d ask.

“It’s Lisa, Josephine. I’m wondering if perhaps you would like to read the paper with me today.”

Moments later she’d open the door, genuinely pleased to see me. “Of course I would. Thank you for inviting me.”

And so it went—the same knock, the same invitation, the same acceptance, over and over again. Until one morning she said no.

“Really?” I asked.

“My stomach feels bad. I think I need to stay close to my bathroom.”

“Gotcha,” I replied. “Next time then.”

But there was no next time. Josephine continued to “feel” sick, although she was perfectly healthy. She grew more confused and doleful, and was eventually transferred



Before entering the locked memory care wing on the top floor of the facility, I punch in a 4-digit key code.

I walk in and immediately the air changes. It slows. It thickens. It smells yeasty. I pass by the caged bird, donated by a relative who believes animals are soothing for people with dementia, and all of the residents up here are afflicted with severe dementia. Most have late-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

I glance at the impressive artwork on the wall. Two of the pieces were painted by Francis, one of the residents. She painted them before her brain could no longer distinguish one color from another. Before she forgot how to hold a paintbrush in her hand.

Breakfast is just ending so I go down to the dining room and shout a spirited “good morning” to everyone. I feel genuinely gratified when Leon says, “hello,” or when Margery waves her napkin at me.

As I grab a slice of bacon off the warming tray, Amina, the lovely Bosnian LPN asks me if I would pay Eva a visit. “She’s in a bad mood,” Amina says, concerned. “You always cheer her up.”

The door is slightly ajar and I can see Eva, a still-beautiful, poised woman in her eighties, sitting on her bed, a look of panic on her face.

“Good morning, Eva,” I say, knocking. “Do you mind if I come in?”

She immediately brightens. “Yes, yes. Please.” She has no idea who I am, but she politely gestures me to the chair across from the bed. The room is tiny, cramped, but tastefully furnished. Eva comes from money—a lot of it. I know this because every time I visit Eva she invites me to look through her photo albums. After twenty times, I have all but memorized the pictures of her family’s lavish home on the beach, her many trips abroad, the cotillions where she danced in dresses made for a princess.

Unlike me, Eva no longer has them memorized. She barely recognizes the people in them. She is aware that the memories belong to her—she just doesn’t understand how they do. alzheimersbrainThat’s what Alzheimer’s does to the brain—it robs one’s connection to the past; those precious personal stories that make up the very essence of social beings. Eventually, Alzheimer’s will probably purloin Eva’s ability to communicate altogether. She is one of only three people here who can still string words together into complete sentences.

Today, Eva is agitated. Before I reach the chair she jumps up and announces that she needs to find her purse.

trainstation“Why?” I ask gently.

“I have to get to the train station,” she says hurriedly. “I promised my mother I’d meet her there and she’ll be angry if I am late.”

As I reach out to take her hand in mine, I understand that Eva’s thoughts are no longer securely bolted to her past. Nor is her damaged brain allowing them to make much sense of the present. It’s as if she’s frozen in a liminal state; a timeless and incoherent



My mother, who has recently begun a slow steady slide into dementia, started to see her own mother in bed with her every night. Having delusions is highly typical of someone with cognitive impairment.

Initially, the mirages my mother saw were innocuous. My dead grandmother. The red flowering bush across the lake appeared to her as a tall woman playing with her grandson. The rock outside her kitchen door morphed into a dead dog whose dog friends often came to mourn him. One always showed up wearing a bow.

But then last week something in her hallucinations shifted. They became scorched by paranoia—again, quite common in early-stage Alzheimer’s. My father—the ex-spouse she’s hated for thirty years—started breaking in.

“He left his empty cereal bowl on the kitchen table, so I know he was here!” she shouted into the phone. “I’m calling the police.”

I tried to stop her, but I live in Vermont and she lives in Florida, and my arms can’t reach that far. Her home companion—an amiable, soothing woman named Pamela—also failed to calm her fears. Mom phoned the police, who came and took a report. Afterward, at her desperate urging, I hired a locksmith to change the locks on her door.

My father did not show up the next day, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. But for the last two nights now, three teenagers have broken in through the lanai, stealing a bottle of wine before exiting through the front door. When she told me about the robberies, she sounded more annoyed than frightened, as if it were a burden she could live with.

numberconfusionIn addition to becoming delusional, she’s also losing all sense of time. Dates mean nothing to her. Numbers are often foreign objects. She can no longer read a book, a deprivation that has amplified her ever-growing depression.

She’s still very talkative, particularly when it comes to politics: the vitriol she hurls toward our President is as keen and biting as ever. She remembers names and has no problem recognizing faces. She can regale a listener with stories from her past as easily as a teenager can. While she is, in a sense, fully independent at the moment, I anticipate a time in the not-too-distant future when she’ll no longer be able to stay in her own home.

How and when will I know it’s the right time to move her into a facility; one where she can be safe? One where someone will read to her? One where no one will steal her wine?

One that has both a downstairs and an upstairs.

*Names have been changed.

Like So Much Light (incandescent forays)


radiance like a turnstile in a subway station
changing with each revolution your face and hands
on my breast the light slow and long then
dim and vibrating like electricity in
1950s movies when wires touch
and spark the air that fills spaces and time between.

remarkably the cat rubs my leg and sparks of
static, a bellow of light
emitted. I, seated uncomfortably
in a high back yellow arm chair that smothers
my thighs that sweats my knees as
I talk aloud to the night.

fallow thoughts unburden my justification;
arms sway honest past my denim bookends
you call thighs. Around you wrapped like a fur
unstained and unnoticed warm
and welcome, tight, embroidered on your hips
and back; prickly 3-days of stubble ignite sparks
but only in my head and in the night that is so
rarely noticed these days.

where Native Americans in tepees turn sticks insidespark3
their palms, masturbating the wooden points
embed themselves with lust and fury,
turning turning past the one side then
the other and circles heaved into space when
shadows fleck apart and orange dewdrops, sparks of
fire fall up, spurt, let loose, free to meet the brush below
for the sake of mush and the history that follows.


Funny thing: I just learned that I was long-listed for a flash fiction contest. Here’s the 500-word or less piece I submitted:


You called in late for work again. When I overheard Robin ask you what time you thought you’d be in I tried to guess why you were going to be late. Did you maybe have a doctor’s appointment? Or had you, like so many other mornings, overslept? But then Robin said, “I’m sorry,” so I figured it was something momentous and I stopped silently swearing at you for showing up late for work all the time, and making me have to slice and toast and smear and wrap bagels faster than I want to so early in the day. To be honest I almost called in this morning, too, because damn did I ever stay out late last night all because Tripp asked me if I wanted to go see Rough Francis play at the Monkey House and I went and stood next to him, dancing in place, waiting for him to turn his attention from the stage just for a second or two to see if I was having a good time or did I want another drink, but it wasn’t until the show ended and he finished whooping his right fist into the air that I think he remembered he’d brought me along.

Marvin, the old guy with eyebrows so bushy that you once suggested he kept his spare keys in them, just walked in and asked for his usual and I hesitated before telling him that I had no idea what his usual was, and that even though we look nothing alike because you’re tall and skinny and I’m, well, I’m not, he must have mistakenly thought I was you because you pretty much know everyone’s usual and I don’t because I’d like to think I have more important things to do than memorize people’s bagel preferences, but instead of just coming right out and saying I’m Sarah, not Gwynn you idiot, and I have no idea what your usual is, I covered my face with my hands like I was all embarrassed and said, “Oh geez, I am so sorry, Marvin, but I’ve totally spaced on your usual,” and he laughed and said, “That’s okay; pumpernickel, toasted with smoked salmon schmear, please,” and after I handed him his usual I was glad I held off being rude even though I hated him and his stupid eyebrows, because you once said that you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar, and besides, Robin was watching me from the register.

You never did show up, so after wiping the counters and mopping the floor I started walking home and when I passed by Manhattans I saw you sitting at the bar so I went in and asked you why you were drinking so early in the day and what’s in that small velvet bag next to your beer, and you said because you were sad, and it’s the ashes of Shelley, your cat, and so I hugged you and said I hope I’ll see you tomorrow.